PARIS — France vowed Wednesday to tear down illegal Gypsy camps and expel Gypsies from other EU states who break the law, after President Nicolas Sarkozy said the minority posed security "problems."
The announcement followed crisis talks called by Sarkozy as part of his declared "war on crime" and which prompted rights groups to accuse him of stigmatising the Roma, Gypsy and traveller minorities.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said 300 illegal "camps or squats" housing Gypsies and travellers would be shut down and foreign Gypsies breaking the law would undergo "virtually immediate" deportation to their countries of origins.
"Tax inspectors will be sent to inspect the households of the inhabitants of these illicit and illegal camps because a lot of our compatriots are rightly surprised to see the caravans pulled by certain powerful cars," he added.
Anti-racism groups, however, were outraged, accusing Sarkozy of singling out and smearing a minority for electoral gain.
"The Elysee wants to stir fear in order to deploy security measures and a surveillance society," said Dominique Sopo of the pressure group SOS-Racism.
Sarkozy stirred controversy by warning ahead of the meeting that some members of the itinerant minorities posed security "problems", in response to an attack on a police station in Saint-Aignan, central France last week.
Masked rioters tried to break down the door of the station, damaged other buildings and burned cars during that attack, sparked after police shot dead a Gypsy during a car chase.
Sarkozy's new "war on crime" was also spurred by separate riots, not linked to the Gypsy minority, in a poor suburb of Grenoble, southeastern France.
He called the meeting of ministers and police chiefs to review what he dubbed "the situation of travelling people and Roma and the problems that certain members of these communities pose to public order and safety."
Gypsy groups and political opponents complained that Sarkozy's approach stigmatises minority communities and did not distinguish between ethnic Roma and Gypsies, and the separate community of French "travellers."
"As happens too often in history, Gypsies are once more being made scapegoats by a ruling class tangled up in political and financial scandals," the Gypsy rights association UFAT said in a statement.
"If Nicolas Sarkozy must repeat his declaration of war, the Collective of Gypsy Associations will be prompted to take legal action for incitement to racial hatred," it added.
The group said it wanted Sarkozy to meet its representatives to begin a dialogue to try to find a solution for the 400,000 Gypsies and travelling people in France.
Authorities estimate meanwhile that in France there are about 15,000 Roma, an ethnic group widespread in eastern Europe.
Most in France are thought to be from Romania and Bulgaria, which both joined the EU in 2007. Many live in slums in suburbs such as Aubervilliers on the outskirts of Paris.
There Socialist mayor Jacques Salvator runs an "insertion village", a cluster of publicly-funded plastic cabins that are home to about 12 Roma families while they wait to be allocated public housing.
Salvator said that "50 projects like this one would be enough to solve the problem in the Paris region."
The cabins are home to Roma such as Dominica Mierriutu, 53, and her husband Mircea, 58, who came to France from Romania and were moved to the "village" from a nearby slum along with their five-year-old granddaughter Rebeca.
"We are lucky. It was a miserable life in the slum shack. Now the children go to school, we have hot water and all that," Dominica Mierriutu told AFP.
Some Roma groups oppose the "insertion" housing system however, saying it fails to help them integrate and does not help them find legal work.
On the waste ground next door meanwhile, local authorities are building a caravan park for travellers, a separate non-ethnic category also discussed at Sarkozy's meeting.
"I don't like the fact that the Elysee holds a summit at a moment like this," reacting only in the wake of the violence, Salvator said.
"The state and Europe must unite to develop a public policy for the Roma," he told AFP. "We are cobbling a system together locally... but for moment we are cobbling it together on our own."
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